To most people, a big, white, vaguely goose-like bird with a long, sinuous neck is a swan. Not to birders. There are three species of swan that regularly occur in Britain, and birders will want to know which one they’re looking at. Is it the familiar mute swan, one of the heaviest flying birds in the world? Or is it one of the two species, both with yellow and black beaks rather than orange, that visit only during the winter, having bred on the Arctic tundra? These are whooper swans and the smaller Bewick’s (known as trumpeter and tundra swans in North America) and they’re what many birders consider ‘proper’ wild swans.
You could be forgiven for thinking that’s where the swan ID puzzle ends. Isn’t a whooper swan just a whooper swan, a Bewick’s swan just a Bewick’s swan? Not to Peter Scott. Observing wintering Bewick’s on the pool directly outside his studio windows at Slimbridge, he noticed that each bird’s black and yellow bill pattern was unique. Like a human fingerprint, it could be used to reliably identify each individual adult swan, enabling their lives to be followed in detail from year to year.
Peter Scott was clearly not short of inspiration, as a broadcaster, artist, founder of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and co-founder of the World Wildlife Fund. But this lesser known spark gave rise to one of the longest running studies of its kind. To this day each new swan that appears at Slimbridge is named, and by noting which parents a new juvenile is associated with its place in the great swan ‘dynasties’ is also known. There can be few wild populations of any animal for which we have such a complete family tree.
What makes this study possible is the swan’s habituation to winter feeding on the pool next to Scott’s old home, now also overlooked by the Peng observatory, part of the Slimbridge visitor’s centre. Almost anywhere else in the world Bewick’s swans are incredibly hard to get close to, and it’s only by persistently feeding at the same time in the same place for many years that they’re comfortable with people at Slimbridge. To me it’s amazing to think that the ‘tame’ birds following a warden with a wheelbarrow full of seed at Slimbridge on Tuesday were eking out an existence on the high tundra just a few months earlier, quite possibly not seeing a single human during the entire summer.
Some might find the sight of wild migrant birds trundling around squabbling over seed somewhat demeaning, and the complex warren of boardwalks, cafés, gift shops and captive animals at Slimbridge a poor setting for a wilderness experience. I would usually tend to agree, but there’s something about the place that just works. It’s a place of mediation, a meeting point between our world and that of the birds. Slimbridge is a kind of conservation cathedral. A place of impressive architecture, open to accusations of commercialism, yet at the same time a place whose fabric is saturated with the spirit of many quiet years’ devotion to wildlife.
Nothing symbolises that dedication better than the love and sheer hard graft that must go into naming and knowing each swan. During a quiet moment alone in the observatory I opened my notebook, looked out at one and began to draw. Every time its head went under the water or shifted from right to left I feared I’d lost the pattern, and I’ve no idea whether my little portrait would be recognisable to one of the researchers who carry on the Bewick’s swan project today. I can only admire their skill and the keen eye of Peter Scott, whose vision gave birth to Slimbridge and, some would say, the entire modern conservation movement.
Follow the swan’s fortunes by keeping up with the WWT Bewick’s Swan diary.